CELTIC were painfully confronted by the brutal reality of a fiendishly difficult Champions League group as their hopes of extending their European involvement this season beyond December perished at the hands of a ruthless AC Milan side.
Scorers: AC Milan - Kaka (12), Zapata (49), Balotelli (59)
Bookings: Celtic - Izaguirre, Van Dijk, Commons
The Italian giants made light of their current domestic troubles as they took full advantage of Celtic’s defensive frailty on the night to fortify their own prospects of joining Barcelona in the last 16 of the elite club competition. Goals by Kaka, Cristian Zapata and Mario Balotelli consigned Celtic to a margin of defeat which equalled the heaviest they have ever suffered at home in their European history.
Group H, uniquely comprised of four former European champions, has simply proved too hot for Neil Lennon’s squad to handle. When the draw was made, the manager had expressed the hope they would not be the “runts of the litter” but they have been unable to match the pedigree of their three illustrious rivals.
Ajax’s 2-1 win over Barcelona last night saw even the potential consolation prize of a place in the last 32 of the Europa League removed from Celtic’s grasp. They will now finish bottom of the group, irrespective of the outcome of their final game against Barcelona in the Nou Camp in a fortnight.
Much of Lennon’s pre-match thinking had been occupied by the need to increase Celtic’s attacking potency, having seen them draw a blank in front of goal in three of their four previous outings in the group. But as he put together a strategy which invested the advanced areas of his team with the additional pace of Derk Boerrigter and James Forrest, he would certainly not have been legislating for the degree of sloppiness at the other end of the pitch which gave Milan their 13th minute opener and undermined what had been a bright start to the match by the home side.
On an evening when concentration levels required to be at their maximum for Celtic, their lack of defensive focus at the opening goal was difficult to credit. Valter Birsa’s corner kick from the right found Kaka unmarked on the edge of the six yard box, the Brazilian playmaker barely having to jump as he guided a simple header beyond Fraser Forster.
Whether the goalkeeper was at fault for failing to come and cut out the delivery, or central defender Virgil van Dijk was more culpable for leaving Kaka unattended, it was a desperately poor goal for Celtic to lose.
It deflated the initial buoyancy of the crowd who had responded with typical raucousness to their team’s early efforts to keep Milan on the back foot. Boerrigter had a chance to validate his first European starting appearance for Celtic when a Charlie Mulgrew corner after just two minutes found him in space at the back post, but the Dutch winger was unable to connect cleanly enough with his volley.
Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati appeared unconvincing in dealing with cross balls during that early spell. He flapped badly at another Mulgrew corner, but was bailed out by his captain Riccardo Montolivo’s alertness before any Celtic player could take advantage.
Beram Kayal then had a clear sight of goal for Celtic when a Mulgrew shot broke into his path inside the penalty area but the Israeli midfielder could not get the ball out of his feet quickly enough and the chance went begging.
Kaka’s opener for Milan took the sting out of Celtic’s work for a period, while news of Ajax taking the lead against Barcelona in the other Group H fixture cast further gloom on proceedings.
It almost got worse for Lennon’s men when Mario Balotelli, playing on the shoulder of Efe Ambrose to avoid being caught offside, burst clear on the end of a rapid counter attack by Milan and drove a shot narrowly over the top. Kaka then curled a 20-yard shot just wide of Forster’s left-hand post as Milan threatened to take complete control.
Celtic were forced into a change on the half-hour mark, Kayal’s injury woes resurfacing as he limped off to be replaced by Joe Ledley. The closing stages of the first half saw Celtic try and ramp up the pressure on Milan but they struggled to find the necessary penetration in and around the visitors’ penalty area.
A rare mistake by Montolivo did present them with one decent opportunity, Kris Commons helping the ball into Mulgrew’s path, but his low shot from around 16 yards was too close to Abbiati who saved comfortably.
Celtic’s prospects of reviving their Champions League ambitions all but disintegrated completely within the first five minutes of the second half as they missed a glorious chance to equalise and then almost immediately conceded another goal as a consequence of dismal defending at a set piece.
Van Dijk should have atoned for his part in the first goal when, after a Joe Ledley free kick in the 47th minute was blocked by the Milan defence, the Welsh midfielder seized on the rebound and floated a perfect cross to the far post.
It found van Dijk in splendid isolation with only Abbiati to beat from around eight yards, but the big Dutchman tamely directed his volley straight into the grateful clasp of the goalkeeper.
Two minutes later, Milan fully punished Celtic as they doubled their lead.
It was another defensive nightmare for the home team who were woefully unresponsive as Birsa delivered a corner from the right. Antonio Nocerino, who had just replaced the injured Ignazio Abate, had all the time he wanted to slide the ball low back across the penalty area for Colombian defender Cristian Zapata to touch it home almost on the line.
Celtic thought they had pulled a goal back in the 51st minute when van Dijk headed in a Ledley cross from close range but the celebrations were cut short when he was correctly flagged offside.
It was becoming pure torment for Celtic now and their agony was intensified when Milan made it 3-0 on the hour mark.
This time it was a long ball from inside the visitors’ half by Montolivo which caught out the Celtic defence, Balotelli easily holding off Ambrose’s challenge to surge into the area and beat Forster with a close range right-foot shot.
Forrest and Samaras missed decent chances to put a more respectable sheen on the scoreline for Celtic but Milan generally saw out the closing stages with comfort on what had proved to be a chastening evening for Lennon’s players.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig, Ambrose, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Kayal (Ledley 30), Mulgrew; Forrest (Rogic 80), Commons (Stokes 65), Boerrigter; Samaras. Subs not used: Zaluska, Balde, Pukki, Fisher
AC Milan: Abbiati, Abate (Nocerino 48), Zapata, Bonera, Emanuelson; Montolivo, De Jong, Poli; Birsa (Constant 72), Kaka (Robinho 80); Balotelli. Subs not used: Coppola, Matri, Cristante, Silvestre.
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey)